Monday 16 July 2012

Deep Acting and Surface Acting

At an international conference on emotion regulation at the University of Limerick, Stina Bergman Blix of the Department of Sociology at Stockholm University presented a study of how actors tend to approach the depiction of emotions on the stage in two different ways. The first of these she calls deep acting when, during rehearsal, the actors recall and relive their own previous experiences of emotions of the kind that are called for by the script. Deep acting relies on what Nico Frijda has called modes of action readiness, and these guide expression without manipulation. The second kind of acting she calls surface acting, in which emotional expression is created deliberately and behaviorally, from a repertoire acquired in training. It's not derived from any inner emotional experience, and it's not accompanied by any such experience.  

When I asked Bergman Blix about her research, I found myself recalling particularly striking experiences of emotion as a playgoer. I said I could remember, for instance, sitting in what now seems to me to have been the fourth row, in a London theatre, when Laurence Olivier played Archie Rice in John Osborne's The Entertainer. Archie Rice is a music-hall comedian on the edge of being past it. The play, I said to Bergman Blix, is very much about the emptiness of this comedian; he's cynical and contemptuous, largely absent within. I told her Olivier was utterly superb in the role. He made the comedian's emptiness very vivid to me.

"Ah," said Bergman Blix. "You see Olivier was very much a surface actor."

In her paper Bergman Blix argued that during rehearsals, as actors come to inhabit their characters, emotional expressions become habitual whether they derive from deep or surface layers, and they attain a settled physicality in the play and in relation to the roles played by other actors. They become what she called "body memories." So in rehearsal, the actors are not just firmly remembering the words of the script and making these words parts of themselves, they are also making their body memories of the emotions parts of themselves. As these body memories are set up as habits, the expressions of emotion in each subsequent rehearsal become less reliant on how they were initially elicited, from deep or surface layers, and this is liberating for the actors, who become able to enter their roles, as they pass through each episode in the play and each relationship with the other stage characters. If one thinks of Stanislavski, the most famous advocate of deep acting, one may recall that his advice to actors to draw on their own emotional experience concerned rehearsal only, not actual performances. By casting emotions into body memories the actors professionalize them. This makes their repetition easier, and makes the transitions into and out of emotional states on the stage less strenuous, so that during performances the actors can concentrate on their relationships with the other actors and on their relationships with the audience.

One may wonder from this kind of research whether actors, like frequent readers of fiction (as found by Raymond Mar et al.), become generally more empathetic and socially skilled than members of the normal public. And one may wonder, too, whether there are differences in this regard between deep actors and surface actors.
Bergman Blix, S. (2012). Professionalization of the experience and expression of emotion: Theoretical implications from a study of stage actors. Paper presented at the conference on Regulating emotions: Contemporary understandings and interdisciplinary perspectives, University of Limerick, 1 May.
Frijda, N. H. (2007). The laws of emotion. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Mar, R. A., Oatley, K., Hirsh, J., dela Paz, J., & Peterson, J. B. (2006). Bookworms versus nerds: Exposure to fiction versus non-fiction, divergent associations with social ability, and the simulation of fictional social worlds. Journal of Research in Personality, 40, 694-712.
Osborne, J. (1957). The entertainer. London; Faber & Faber.
Stanislavski, C. (1936). An actor prepares (E. R. Habgood, Trans.). New York: Routledge.
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JoseAngel said...

Deep acting surely takes its energy from the fact recognized by Shakespeare, that all the world is a stage and we are only players, even when we think we are not acting. Now Hegel also wrote quite substantial things of the theory of everyday life as drama, and of drama as metadrama. Here is a comment I wrote some days ago - it's in Spanish but Hegel's quotes are in English:

Keith Oatley said...

Thank you very much JoseAngel. The link to Hegel is very useful. All best, Keith

Peter Floyd said...

now it great

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